That casual invitation from a cute guy with tattoos, funny pants and a rat tail is enough to convince teenage Star to leave her dysfunctional family and join a caravan of other disaffected young people. They’re selling magazine subscriptions door to door, and it’s got to be better than the dumpster-diving Star’s been doing to make ends meet.
Andrea Arnold’s indie feature American Honey jumps in the van with Star (Sasha Lane), and we’re off for a somewhat shambolic tour of the Heartland, from the desultory cheap motels and truck stops to the leafy suburbs and the Dakota oil fields. Star fits in easily enough with the mag crew, an ad hoc family of runaways and drifters. She falls in love (at least a little bit) with the crew wrangler (Shia LaBeouf), and bristles at the team’s hard-as-nails boss (Riley Keough).
Arnold also wrote the film, supplemented with improvisational work from the actors, most of whom, including break-out star Lane, are nonprofessionals. She has a keen sense for exploring the inner and outer lives of working-class girls struggling to find their place in a confusing world that doesn’t seem to offer much opportunity; it’s an affinity evident in her 2003 Oscar-winning short “Wasp,” as well as her 2009 feature Fish Tank.
Some viewers might despair of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, as well its haphazard pacing, lack of plot and ambiguous ending. Others, as I did, will settle into its groove; American Honey has an immersive quality, bolstered by its naturalism and long “pointless” scenes that nonetheless keep us always within Star’s experience.
It’s Star’s coming-of-age via a road trip, but it’s also a portrait of America, still struggling from the recession and larger institutional failures. The kids are aimless, cynical and on drugs, because why not. But they also possess spirit: They harness their assorted natural skills to sell magazines, even knowing it’s a scam and not advancing their futures in the least.
Thus, there is sadness in this film, even as we root for Star to make it through and beyond — she’s strong and has smarts, but life is a real beat-down. The hijinks and the braying laughter of the crew just barely conceal how anxious and lonely these kids are. But then there are exhilarating moments: Hell yes, it’s great to be out here doing whatever! Among the film’s strengths is a thoughtfully chosen soundtrack of country, hip hop, alternative and more. No one is more emotionally affected by sing-along pop music than teens, and a couple of scenes set to the perfect song made me a little weepy for how that works.